Sometimes I wonder how we have ended up where we are. For those of you without German, the tweet below roughly translates as: If something is produced with public money, then it must be open – whether it is software, educational material, or data…

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The platitude that it’s taxpayers’ money so the results should be freely available, is one I’ve encountered often enough in relation to the Marie Curie Fellowship. Each time it astonishes me how little capacity, or desire, there is to actually think about what this means in practice.

Do we really believe that public money should flow into the coffers of multinational publishers that can charge extortionate open-access publication fees to researchers who have no choice but to pay up because of the conditions of their grants ? Or that taxpayers should indirectly finance private corporations – which is effectively what will happen if researchers are required to publish their findings under a license that gives them no right to any profit arising from their work, thus leaving a third party free to make money from the labour of others?

These are real concerns, and raising them should not have one branded as old-fashioned or out-of-touch or elitist. Of course open-access has a role to play, and of course it has the potential to do much good (if you’ve any doubt about my openness to it, try here) – we just need to debate it intelligently, rather than operating on the level of soundbites and hollow clichées.

The discussion needs to be had because the idea of social investment/return behind the ‘public money’ pseudo-argument doesn’t exist in isolation but is part of a wider shift in how learning and research are conceived. The subsequent conversation on twitter, for instance, had the original tweeter clarifying her position by saying that ‘Bildung’ – a difficult German term that we could translate as education or knowledge – is not an end in itself but should always have social action as its goal, and illustrating this with examples such as tying the study of medicine to healing people, or of pedagogy to teaching. Are we really saying that learning as an end in itself is undesireable, and that the ability to think critically and develop an enquiring mind per se does not matter? That somebody fascinated by the marvel of the human body, should not be allowed to find out about it unless they want to be a doctor? That the purpose of the university is to be a factory producing workers for particular professions that society ‘needs’?

I will leave it at that, but would end by pointing out that this is not just one of the ephemeral question marks that twitter has a habit of throwing up before they slip off the bottom of one’s feed. In a recent speech, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, concluded her support for open access with the following remarks:

Ich weiß, dass es da Diskussionsbedarf gibt, aber wir sollten uns dem stellen. Die Ergebnisse öffentlich geförderter Forschung sollen, wie wir finden, auch der Öffentlichkeit zugutekommen.

Or, translated: I know that there is a need for discussion here; but we should not shy away from it. The results of publically supported research should, we believe, also benefit the public.

One wonders what kind of discussion is going to be had when the profession of openness to it – is followed immediately by wording not dissimilar from the rhetorical trick with which this blogpost has been concerned.